Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

My IRL book club has chosen ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent for the month of June. The choices were all based on the ‘Women’s Prize for Fiction’ back list but it was ‘Burial Rites’ that won the book club vote.

‘Burial Rites’ is a a truly brilliant read. I was hooked from the moment that I picked it up. It is haunting and beautifully written, based on a true story, a tale of the last execution to take place in 1830. And that execution was that of a woman, Agnes Magnusdottir (apologies: the spelling is missing some of the symbols needed on the letters). Now, this is no spoiler, as you can imagine her crime must be one of the worst if the punishment is execution – and it is; she is charged with being complicit in the murder of Natan, a man she has been in love with, and who she believed, or maybe hoped, loved her too.

This book is a fictionalised exploration of Agnes’ exprience as she awaits her execution, and the people who are responsible for her care, spiritually and physically, until that final moment. It also slowly reveals what had happened on that fateful night, and leaves us considering the morality of the execution.

I felt fully immersed in this world. I could feel the cold of 1830 in Iceland, and the isolation that Agnes felt in those final days. It evoked anger as I read about the moment that led to the crime with which she is charged, and the inequality of society as nobody appears to relate to Agnes and what happened because of her social background and her gender. She is labelled by her ‘guilt’ until others start to see past that, as they spend time together, and the sense of injustice starts to build.

The final pages are some of the best that I have read: I cannot share more than that as I do not want to spoil it for readers. But I almost felt like I was there in the final moments of the story, feeling all the emotions as the story drew to a close.

I am not sure I can do this book justice because I do not want to spoil the experience for other readers but this is a book that is going to become one of my auto recommendations when people ask for something to read. It will satisfy those who enjoy historical fiction; it will satisfy those who like a great story with fantastic writing, and it will satisfy those who enjoy crime fiction. To be honest, it will be a satisfying read to anybody who admires a well-constructed story with fascinating characters – whatever your usual genre taste is.

Doing the Double with Lisa Jewell

It is not often that I will read the first book in a duology, trilogy or series and then instantly pick up the next, but Lisa Jewell made me do exactly that. I bought ‘The Family Remains’ last summer but had not picked it up, as someone told me it was actually a sequel to ‘The Family Upstairs’, so I, of course, had to find a copy of that first. And, as usual, my favourite charity bookshop saved the day, not just having a copy of ‘The Family Upstairs’, but having a lovely hardback edition.

So, at the start of this month, I decided it was time to read ‘The Family Upstairs’, as I was pretty certain a thriller by Lisa Jewell was not going to disappoint and was going to be exactly what I needed, as my brain was in the thriller mood. My goodness, it did not take me long to get through this book, as I basically was reading at every opportunity, including staying in the car as Mr Bookwormandtheatremouse did the weekly shop, as I had to know what was going to happen next. This thriller had everything that I love about this genre. There was a dual timeline, as those in the present were trying to find out the mysteries of the past and the history of the house on the Thames and the mysterious family (and their ‘friends’) that had lived there. There is an unreliable narrator, in amongst all the other characters, who is so cleverly constructed that even when you know the truth, you are still not sure it really is the truth. And, of course, there are a number of mysteries and fascinating characters that just leave you wanting more all the time.

In fact, I think it is safe to say that this book is a masterclass in thriller writing. As all the readers want is more, this was certainly proved by the fact that for the first time I was willing to immediately pick up the next book – which, of course, I did.

‘The Family Remains’ mainly focuses on searching for one of the characters that we do not meet in the previous book, although we know that they are out there somewhere in the world. Phinn/Finn is missing but Birdie has been discovered (I cannot say more than that, as we know my feeling on spoilers appearing in blog posts). So, in this book, we find out more about the characters that we met in the first book and we are on a knife edge throughout, as we do not know if the darkest secrets of all will be revealed.

For the reader, this book holds more of a moral dilemma, as it does for some of the characters. Are the worst possible actions ever acceptable in the name of survival or protection? And, this follows you all through the book, and probably stays with you even after you have read the last line – and it is quite a last line! It would be interesting to see if a reader responds differently to ‘The Family Remains’ if they have not read ‘The Family Upstairs’. Would they have the same connections to the characters? Would they have the same responses to some of their actions? In fact, it would make such a brilliant book club discussion if both books were read – there is so much to unpick and work out.

If these books have been on your wishlist or your tbr pile a little too long, then I recommend that you pick them up as soon as you can, because they are a truly brilliant read, and so worth reading together.

The Last Paper Crane by Kerry Drewery

Miss W (who we all know I share books with on a regular basis) offered me the chance to borrow ‘The Last Paper Crane’, which I jumped at as I have seen so many people love this book. And, Oh My Word, I can see why so many people love and treasure this book. In fact, it is a book that I am going to be encouraging everybody to read because I think there are so many lessons that can be learnt from this book, about the past, the present and the future.

I was also told that I would read this book quickly and that prediction was not wrong as I could not put this book down from the moment I started it. If it was not for the fact that sleep is fairly essential I think I would have read it in one sitting. And, it is not just the story that keeps you reading, it is the fact that this book is so beautifully illustrated and written that you become drawn in from the moment you start reading.

This book is about the tragic events in 1945 in Japan, when the USA dropped the two atomic bombs. This book is about the people and the places that were damaged and harmed after this terrible act of warfare and violence. But, this is most importantly a book about survival and hope.

Mizuki is worried about her grandfather, his wife has recently died and he seems to be struggling as she was the one person that he shared his hardest memory with from his past. Mizuki soon finds out that her grandfather is a survivor of the attack on Hirsohima, but that he lost so much in that attack and feels that he let down his friend Hiro because he did not save his friend’s younger sister, Keiko. Mizuki’s grandfather recounts his tale and how, when he gradually recovered from the attack he kept searching for Keiko, leaving paper cranes with his contact details anywhere he thought Keiko may be. Mizuki is inspired to try and help he grandfather ease the survivour’s guilt he has carried around him for so many years and help him understand that he has always done all he could.

This book is one of the most moving pieces of historical fiction I have ever read, and is a very special book that I would encourage young people and adults to read as it is a really special book. It is a book that readers will treasure for a long time and often return to. This is a book full of lessons for us all and one that I will be thinking about for a long time to come.

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang

I think this book has been on my shelf for about 3 years – which is terrible. However, it was picked as my May read for the ‘Twelve Days of Bookmas’ – and I am rather glad that it was.

I am not sure why it has taken me so long to pick up this book, but I think it may be because it was a book that slightly intimidated me. The title, the cover and the fact that it is historical fiction made me avoid it when it was sitting on the shelf, because I think I thought it would be something that I would find hard-going. However, I was wrong.

This book is incredibly readable as it immerses you in the world of the American West (a theme of a couple of my book choices this month, I wonder if I am missing teaching the topic – haha) but from a very different perspective to the usual tales. This is told from the point of view of a Chinese migrant family to the West – and this is something that really makes this book stand out – but it also sets up what you believe to be one story: the story of an ambitious but possibly slightly foolish man who believes that his fortune will be made in the American West, and that the next job, plot of land, or big gambling win will be the one. Yet, this is not the full story for this family and it may not have been Ba who had made all the choices after all, and established the situation that Lucy and Sam now find themselves in.

Lucy and Sam are orphaned and forced to embark on quite the journey, so that they can find the perfect place to bury Ba and work out how they will survive now that they are alone in the world. This journey becomes quite the adventure, and it becomes clear that, as the siblings try to find their new normal, they have different ideas about the past, and the memories that have formed who they are and how they see the world.

This book is beautifully written. The characters, and the wilderness and towns, are so vividly brought to life that you feel immersed in the world of the American West – and you can feel all the emotions that the characters are experiencing as they embark on their path of self-discovery. There are also some twists to the tale that keep you reading on – a couple of moments caused me to read past my bedtime, as I just had to find out more about the characters and the events of the past and present.

So, if this is a book that you have been considering, then take this as your sign to pick it up. And if it is a book that is new to you, I suggest you take a chance on it, because it is really quite an epic piece of historical fiction.